February 5, 2023—A recent headline in the New York Times caught my attention and really ticked me off. The guest essay was titled “What if Diversity Training is Doing More Harm than Good?” It was written by a man who described himself as “an investigative journalist (who) exposes the many holes in today’s bestselling behavioral science, and argues that the trendy, TED-Talk-friendly psychological interventions that are so in vogue at the moment will never be enough to truly address social injustice and inequality.”
The premise of this essay was a study published in the Annual Review of Psychology. The study found “limited…evidence-based proof” of the effectiveness of programs designed for “reducing prejudice.” In conclusion, the researchers wrote: “Although attitudes and behaviors are correlated, the prejudice reduction interventions often seem more successful at changing discriminatory behaviors than at reducing negative stereotypes…”
As a consultant whose life-long work has been dedicated to ensuring that arts and culture both build and strengthen communities, I have witnessed the importance of having the principles of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access as the cornerstone of that work. I have seen the impact of behavior changes—of fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging. My clients have provided testimonials. True, some people may have had a different outcome. But that does not mean that the experience wasn’t valuable or illuminating in some way.
I believe it’s essential that we respond to distorted views that EDI&A programs are harmful, ineffective and a waste of time and resources. Articles like this one mark a concerted effort to discredit not only EDI&A, but also anti-racism policies, social justice concerns, as well as efforts to respect the dignity and humanity of marginalized people.
They are a part of the “Stop W.O.K.E.” war.
“Stop W.O.K.E.” stands for “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.” Those behind the “Stop W.O.K.E.” laws in Florida are banning the teaching of materials about racial injustice, social justice or gender identity, and are denying the value of African-American history for high school students. Just last week, Florida officials also began the effort to close EDI&A programs on college and university campuses.
“Stop W.O.K.E.” has shifted its extremist focus from solely attacking Critical Race Theory (CRT) to now “protecting” K-12 white children, whom they say are being “unfairly traumatized” by “liberal indoctrination” and gender-identity issues.
All extremism is based on misinformation, exaggeration and lies. In this case, the extremist proponents of this insidious effort have whipped up the fears of white parents, who naturally want to protect their children. The problem is these lies are “protecting” white children from the history and life experiences of 40-percent of their peers in Florida.
And as these cowardly efforts spread across the country, they run the risk of erasing the family histories and generational life experiences of 50-percent of ALL children nationwide (As of 2021, 50-percent of the children in this country are people of color, and the number is expected to continue to grow).
What future will any child have if we allow their learning opportunities to remain the fodder of these perilous and divisive attacks?
I urge you to read this article published in June of 2021 in The New Yorker about the chief architect behind the anti-CRT battlefront. He took the work of legal and academic scholars that explains systemic racism and made CRT the negative, catch-all phrase for anything related to race, racism, inequality, and the institution of slavery. He has weaponized fear to undermine our nation’s collective efforts—from EDI&A workshops to utilizing the arts—to address serious social concerns, police accountability and historic injustices.
Thankfully, the article also included hopeful insights from Kimberlé Crenshaw, renowned civil rights advocate, professor, and one of the legal scholars credited with developing CRT. She was asked about the attacks and the animosity.
“This is a post-George Floyd backlash,” Ms. Crenshaw said in the article, adding that the impact of Mr. Floyd’s murder by a white police officer led to “so many corporations and opinion-shaping institutions making statements about structural racism” and the formation of the largest and broadest anti-racist alliance in the country’s history.
But “reform itself creates its own backlash,” she was quoted as saying, “which reconstitutes the problem in the first place. The reason why we’re having this conversation is that the line of scrimmage has moved.”
I think we all knew the backlash was coming. However, what is most important is how we respond. How do we use our work in the arts to positively redirect the course of this battle to create value, rather than villainize people whose life experiences are different from ours? I found The New Yorker article infuriating, illuminating, as well as instructive. But most importantly, I decided that I would utilize what I read to reaffirm my efforts as a catalyst for change and a champion for EDI&A in the arts.
The quest to have diverse audiences must be rooted in action that honestly acknowledges the value of people of color. As equals. And when our organizations, institutions and venues are permeated with a culture of belonging and inclusion, it leads to expanded audience access and deeper engagement.
We collectively have a lot of work to do before that happens in a significant way. Changing 405 years of behavior will not happen overnight, within a year, or even a decade. As members of the arts community, we know change is a process, not an event. Add to that thought what Socrates is purported to have said about change: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
That’s what we are doing with EDI&A—we are working together to build the new. We are working to change our behaviors, as well as our attitudes, one step at a time. We are advocating the value of dialogue, listening, sharing, and we are learning to appreciate the opportunity to get to know and understand each other’s stories and journeys; to find the common denominator of our shared humanity. We are determining how we can work together to create equitable, diverse, inclusive, and accessible workplaces and communities where all people are respected; all people are welcome, and where all people belong.
Most important, we are moving in a direction that is providing results and offering hope to me and my colleagues working in the field.
As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below. What action will you take this year to protect and advance efforts for EDI&A and racial and social justice?
PS: Did you know? The origin of the phrase “woke” and “stay woke” was a 1938 song about the Scottsboro Boys written and sung by legendary blues musician Lead Belly. At the end of the song, he encouraged everybody, “best stay woke and keep your eyes open.” It was later used in the 1940s by African Americans to encourage each other to remain aware of issues of injustice and vigilant about their rights.
Flash forward to the 2008 song, Master Teacher, by singer Erykah Badu, the phrase “stay woke” became part of the Black Lives Matter movement, urging people to stop ignoring the impact of racism, especially the disproportionate killing of Black people by police.
As the arguments escalate against EDI&A, racial and social justice programs, and the protection of marginalized people, it is not only important that we all “stay woke,” we must also push back against any effort that denies the respect and dignity of all human beings.